In 1968, the year of student uprisings and critical appraisal of National Socialism, the retrospective “50 Years of the Bauhaus” was held in Stuttgart. Consequently, the exhibition “50 Years after ‘50 Years of the Bauhaus’ 1968” at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart deals with a very special Bauhaus. Its curators, Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler, talk about their exhibition concept and the newly heightened focus on the Bauhaus, 50 years after the legendary retrospective.
Ms Dressler, Mr Christ, the exhibition “50 Years after ‘50 Years of the Bauhaus’ 1968” follows four thematic strands. Can you briefly sketch them out?
Starting with Herbert Bayer, who designed the display of the 1968 Bauhaus exhibition in Stuttgart, the first strand deals with the ambivalences of graphic and exhibition design from the 1920s to the 1940s, which is located between experimentation and propaganda. In the course of their careers, figures like Bayer worked for ideologically highly contradictory clients – including the National Socialists. The second strand of the exhibition relates the Bauhaus and its surroundings to the artistic movements of the 1950s to the 1970s. It deals in particular with the artistic counter-models of rationalisation, standardisation and the functional city. A central figure in the rationalisation of housing production is the Bauhausler Ernst Neufert, who worked in the service of the National Socialists and made his way onto the team directly under Albert Speer.
The focus of the third strand is on the interrelationships between the modern avant-garde and the military-industrial complex: between aerial photography and aerial warfare, or the housing construction and defence industries. At the same time, it is devoted to opposing positions on mechanisation, militarisation and the control of public space and public life. And finally, the fourth strand seeks to provide an outlook on the possible narratives of multiple modernities. After the events of 1989 and the globalisation that has followed, the concept of a western-dominated modernity can no longer be maintained. Instead, the relationships between tradition and progress, applied and fine art, popular and elitist arts, as well as the world of the colonised and the colonisers, must be continually re-evaluated.
A retrospective of a retrospective is not just an ambitious concept from a curatorial standpoint. Can visitors who do not yet know the Bauhaus still follow the exhibition?
The exhibition is not just about the Bauhaus. We look at it from the perspectives of various contexts of the 1960s – the decade when “50 Years Bauhaus” opened – and from today’s perspective. For example, we juxtapose the ideas of New Architecture and the functional city, of how they influenced the Bauhaus and its surroundings, with the positions of the Situationists: that is, methods of the dérive (editor’s note: dérive is translated into “drifting” and is the concept of unplanned, situational strolling through the urban space and experiencing it) and psychogeography, which aim to enable new, unexpected ways of experiencing the city, or Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys’s urban utopia “New Babylon”. A link between the Bauhaus and the Situationists is made with the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, founded by the Danish artist Asger Jorn. It came about from the failed attempt by Jorn to collaborate with the Hochschule für Gestaltung (School of Design) in Ulm, which was founded in 1953 by Max Bill as a successor to the Bauhaus.
The exhibition offers material for the senses, information and explanations for all these contexts, so that even people who know nothing about the Bauhaus or the artistic movements of the 1950s and 1960s can understand the exhibition. Beyond that, we offer a lecture series on the Bauhaus as well as other educational programmes intended for a broad audience. Since the exhibition is very extensive, we recommend a guided tour, which provides a good introduction to and overview of the different themes of the exhibition.
With the exhibition, you do not want to just situate the Bauhaus within the narrative of progress, freedom and democracy, but also to point out ambivalences of the design school – what are those contradictions?
In the 1968 exhibition “50 Years of the Bauhaus”, the focus was, among other things, on improving the badly tarnished image of German culture abroad after the Second World War. The Bauhausler were shown here above all as adversaries or persecutees of the Third Reich, which is justified in many cases. Since the 1990s at the latest, however, it is known that many Bauhaus members also worked for the National Socialists after the famous school was closed in 1933, including people working in the field of graphic design and on major propaganda exhibitions at the Berlin Radio Tower, such as “German People – German Work” (1934) and “Germany” (1936).
The Nazi regime had a great interest in being considered modern and cosmopolitan in some circles. They were supported in this by innovative designers of the day, such as Herbert Bayer, Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, Joost Schmidt and others. Some of what resulted were strange hybrids of a naive Nazi aesthetic and the lightness of modern forms. In addition to exhibitions, this also applies to magazines like the fashion magazine “die neue linie”, which was designed by an array of Bauhaus artists. We are not trying to make moral judgments about one person or another, but to reveal these ambivalences within the aesthetics of modernism. The innovations in exhibition design were, among other things, based on the possibilities offered by photography – especially photomontage and photographic enlargement techniques – and by typography and an expanded spatial concept. Spaces were created in which visitors could literally immerse themselves. The exhibition also calls attention to the aesthetic experiments in the realm of photography and spatial conception, and their use by ideological regimes.
“50 Years after ‘50 Years of the Bauhaus’ 1968” deals with the Bauhaus from the specific perspective of the late 1960s. Does such a critical distance find a place in your exhibition, also with respect to how the Bauhaus is seen today?
In our opinion, a critical distance to one’s own position can only be gained by listening to multiple voices. For that reason, we invited fifteen artists and curators to develop new artworks and other contributions that take up, continue or redirect aspects of the exhibition. For example, the architects Mona Mahall and Asli Serbest draw attention to feminist approaches in modern architecture. Their collection of plans, images, models and programmes spread over four tables will grow in the course of two workshops. Alexander Kluge has created a video triptych expressly for the exhibition, whose starting point is László Moholy-Nagy’s 1921 film project “Dynamics of the City”. Moholy-Nagy’s project was never realised as a film but exists in the form of a graphic film manuscript. The euphoria of that time towards the dynamics of urban life has, as Kluge shows us, today given way to the rigorously calculated primacy of accelerated commodity circulation.
Kaiwan Mehta explores aspects of Indian modernism in his curatorial installation, and Yvonne P. Doderer examines the extensive network of relationships that arise from the history of Erich Mendelsohn’s Schocken department store in Stuttgart and its subsequent demolition – to name but a few examples of the new artistic and curatorial work that has been produced.
The exhibition also asks about international developments that took place parallel to the Bauhaus, for example in India or Russia. Is this part also to be understood as a direct reference to other projects related to 100 years of bauhaus programme, like the exhibition project “bauhaus imaginista”?
In contrast to the bauhaus imaginista project, our project explores the questions of multiple modernities in a more exemplary way, and in the sense of an outlook. Neither of the two projects came about into direct relation the other, but they can certainly be read in combination. Ideally, all of the exhibitions and projects within the framework of 100 years of bauhaus collectively produce an open narrative about the Bauhaus and the surrounding contexts, which in their complexity and divergence cannot be reduced to a common denominator.
[CG 2018; Translations DK]